July 22– World Brain Day

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July 22nd is World Brain Day, a time to pause and consider not only our own brain health but those who suffer with brain disorders and brain disabilities. The theme this year is “Brain Health and Disability: Leave No One Behind.” The World Federation of Neurology is hoping that this increased focus will inspire global initiatives to expand awareness of disability and improve healthcare access for people with disabilities. We all need to recognize that disabled people also need care and services and have a right to brain health across the life span without the stigma that is still prevalent around this disability.

The World Brain Day has five points that they hope we all become aware of:

  • Prevention: Brain disabilities can be prevented, treated, and rehabilitated.
  • Awareness: Global brain health awareness can reduce the disability associated with brain disorders.
  • Access: Universal access to care, treatment, rehabilitation, and assistive technology is essential.
  • Education: Education increases equity for those living with brain disabilities.
  • Advocacy: Brain health is a human right that applies to everyone, everywhere.

As I pondered these points and the goals of this World Brain Day, I wondered how do I bring this down to my, and hopefully your, personal level? What does this really mean to me? As I’ve grown old (I’m about 6 weeks away from ¾ of a century old), I’ve had a front row seat to my physical decline. The aches and pains have sadly become the main topic of conversations with my friends. A bigger fear for me was witnessing a decline in my mental abilities. I’ve began to see firsthand people I know from parents to even friends fight dementia or other brain disabilities. I lost a dear friend and fellow B-52 crew member to the ravages of Lewy body dementia. I witnessed his decline and the change in his personality. I don’t think I’m alone when I wonder if those instances when I go into another room and forget what I went in there for is the first sign of some sort of dementia. I get frustrated when I know that I once knew a great word that would precisely describe a situation but can’t pull it out of my memory banks. It’s frustrating because I worked hard during my life to develop a broad vocabulary and I know I once knew the word but now I can’t remember it. The saving grace of this situation is that most of my friends have this same problem, so I feel like maybe this is just getting old and not the onset of a serious problem.

So, what can we do? We all should know the signs of the onset of dementia:

  • Memory loss that disrupts daily life
  • Poor judgment, leading to bad decisions
  • Loss of spontaneity and sense of initiative
  • Losing track of dates or knowing current location
  • Taking longer to complete normal daily tasks
  • Repeating questions or forgetting recently learned information
  • Trouble handling money and paying bills
  • Challenges in planning or solving problems
  • Wandering and getting lost
  • Losing things or misplacing them in odd places
  • Difficulty completing tasks such as bathing
  • Mood and personality changes
  • Increased anxiety and/or aggression

The most important thing to know is, if we have any questions or symptoms, the first thing we should do is go see our doctor. There are tests that can be done to evaluate if what we are experiencing is the onset of some type of dementia. It’s not the easiest disease to identify — there are no blood tests that can precisely conclude we are experiencing Alzheimer’s or dementia, but through cognitive tests and other methods a diagnosis can be made.

The yearly Medicare wellness exam is one opportunity to review your cognitive health. I must admit, I haven’t been a big fan of this exam because it isn’t a full physical and doesn’t include many things I was used to. What I have come to appreciate is the myriad of questions asked in the exam, questions that delve into your living environment, your nutrition, and your mental health. I can see the wisdom in this exam because it goes beyond just aches and pains and looks at your broader overall health and living situation. It’s an opportunity for the doctor to uncover cognitive problems, deficient nutrition, and even elder abuse. I’ve become more of a fan.

There are indications that there are things we can do to keep our minds engaged and maintain our cognitive health. There are indications that keeping ourselves in good physical health, especially maintaining a healthy blood pressure, are helpful in keeping our brains healthy. Exercise and healthy eating seem to be the universal medicine for everything that ails us. The National Institute on Aging’s website is a great place to find answers and suggestions about Alzheimer’s and dementia.

While I’ve focused on the personal things we can do for our brain health, there is also something we can do that could help our fellow seniors (I know you would be disappointed if I didn’t talk about some timely issue that we need to be aware of). One of the biggest disappointments for scientists has been the lack of breakthroughs for treatments or cures for Alzheimer’s. Finally, in June 2021, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a drug for Alzheimer’s, but the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) decided to only make it accessible to patients who were part of a clinical trial. I’ve discussed this in earlier blogs where I pointed out what a dangerous precedent this set. A few days ago, another Alzheimer’s drug got a full approval. Many pundits have talked negatively about both of these approvals. The FDA approved both these drugs for a disease that, up to this point, had very few treatments. The FDA has been a trusted gold standard for decades. How is it possible that the CMS can suddenly limit access to an approved drug? Those who suffer from Alzheimer’s and those who are their caregivers need all the help they can get. We need to tell our lawmakers to respect the FDA’s proven track record and stop any efforts to limit access to these approved drugs.

I hope each of us takes the time to focus on our brain health on this upcoming World Brain Day.

Best, Thair

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